REVIEW: THE SEA WITHIN – “The Sea Within”
In a world where a musician having only one band to focus their energy on is more of an unusual occurrence than the norm, it is unsurprising the number of side projects fans have to explore. And with side projects come expectations, and the more “name” musicians involved the greater the expectation, and when those musicians are all at the tops of their field the word “supergroup” is sure to get thrown into the mix. So when InsideOut Music announced the formation and upcoming self titled album by The Sea Within it was immediately labeled a supergroup.
It is no surprise as the band is comprised of guitarist Roine Stolt and bassist Jonas Reingold of the Flower Kings, lead vocalist and guitarist Daniel Gildenlöw (Pain of Salvation), drummer Marco Minnemann (Aristocrats), and keyboardist Tom Brislin (ex Yes Symphonic). This gathering is more of an amalgamation of incredible talent than a typical supergroup; the result is spread across two disks and 77 minutes, and is one of the freshest albums in the prog genre in recent years.
The genesis of the band comes from Stolt and his desire to do something different and work with some musicians he has either worked with in the past or admired, and to create an album that is truly a band effort with everyone involved in the composing and arranging of songs. In doing something different they succeeded admirably; this album doesn’t sound like anything these men have done in their past. There are no half hour epics or blistering metal passages. Indeed from a sonic standpoint the album is fairly laid back. This is not to say it is slow or lacks the members’ obvious technical prowess, and complex compositions, simply that they very rarely decide to hit the listener in the mouth with it. It is much more subtle, and requires a bit of patience and close listening. My biggest suggestion to anyone going into this album is to drop whatever preconceived notions you may have and go into it as blind as possible. This is hard, believe me I know. I tried and still had a few sub-conscious expectations that left the first play through feeling a bit underwhelming. However, halfway through the second listen everything changed; and it began to click, but you’re still better off going into it pretending you’d never heard a note any of these guys have recorded.
The opening track is “Ashes of Dawn” which is also the first single the band released. It makes for an ideal opening song as after some light ambient sounds the hard riffing of guitars begin, and Daniel’s signature vocal style comes roaring in. It is also probably the most overtly prog sounding song on the album. With classic riffing and key work that combined with jazzy drumming brings to mind 70s King Crimson; add in the sax work by guest Rob Townsend and it all comes together. It is, however, one of the few songs that one can point to a clear counterpart in. It is followed by the piano and ballad driven “They Know My Name” which emphasizes the melodic strength of the composers and the vulnerability of Daniel’s vocals.
An early favorite of mine was “An Eye For An Eye For An Eye” which starts out fast and catchy. The bands’ more pop sensibilities are on full display at the beginning of this song, both the lyrics dealing with the hum drum nature of much of life and the fairly straight forward drumming and guitar work. There is an easily hummable melody and bits that could pass for a chorus. Then at the 3 minute mark everything changes, the music slows down, Marco plays a basic drum pattern while Roine plays a left of center solo over the top, and then it suddenly goes full on jazz. The piano work is simply sublime, while Marco shows off the speed and subtlety of his hands and they let their jazz chops shine through. It’s a perfect moment, and when the bass and guitar kick back in at the end just before the song “proper” picks back up it builds a wonderful tension. What makes the song work so well is the unexpected interlude of tight jazz in the middle of a catchy pop rock song. The band further shows their wisdom by not going back to this well again and repeating themselves.
The fifth song “Goodbye” will stick out as well as the vocals are handled by guest vocalist Casey McPherson (Flying Colors) who will also be performing lead vocals on the majority of the band’s upcoming live performances. He has a very different vocal quality and his vocals fit the song perfectly. It is another very melodic piece with excellent playing throughout and a chorus and vocal line that will get wormed into your head for days, but in a good way. The melodies are strong enough to appeal to your boring pop friends, but the music and playing crazy and involved enough to make the prog heads happy; a rare accomplishment indeed.
It is followed by a short instrumental before the album’s lone long track “Broken Chord” begins. “Broken Chord” is a bit of an odd track on an album full of slightly off kilter songs. It clocks in at over 14 minutes, but doesn’t have the feel or structure of most songs of that length. At times it is very poppy, and others there is a band choral sound that is borderline barbershop quartet in nature, and style. And then there is the requisite instrumental section where the band gets to stretch and once again show off their considerable skills. I enjoy the song and never find it boring, but it has no real flow throughout and feels at times like pieces of songs were thrown together to see what would stick; that or an improvisation that went on a bit too long. It has some highly memorable moments, but isn’t one of my favorites.
The second disk is rather shorter than the first, comprised of four songs and running just over 27 minutes. All the tracks could easily have fit onto the main disk, so I do not know the reason for separating them, unless the band worried about flow, as the song quality is equal to the main disk throughout. It also has a couple real gems as well. The first is “Where Are You Going” which is special because the legendary Jon Anderson of Yes is a guest vocalist on it. He sings more in support than lead, but hearing him is always a treat and his vocals towards the end of the song really bring everything together nicely.
The final track is also one of my favorites and is unlike anything else on the album. “Denise” is a slow, rather minimal song. The song seems to be dealing with losing a love or very old friend, someone one had been children with, regardless. The real power and beauty of this song is Daniel’s vocals. For my money it is among his finest, and most emotional performances of his career. While not as powerful as his vocals on Pain of Salvation’s “Undertow” they at times nearly rival that masterpiece for sheer emotion and feeling. As the music subtly builds towards its climax, the pain and grief in his voice is palatable; it will bring tears to many, I have no doubt about that. As unusual a way as it is to end this particular album with such a song, it is also a perfect ending, as I can’t imagine anything following it that could possibly work as a closer. This album takes chances, and this is certainly a bold one.
‘The Sea Within’ is a bold and refreshing album in a genre that at times is in danger of repeating itself and looking too closely to the past rather than truly doing something progressive. As a musical collective The Sea Within is comprised of some of the best musicians in rock, and unlike many collaborations they did something completely new and different from their main bands, which in all honesty is a rare thing. This is an album that might well take time to grow on a listener, and any expectation should be dropped at the door. And while it loses focus at times, it remains an exceptional piece of work that prog fans should take the time to embrace. This album is a breath of fresh air; I recommend opening the window.